EVEN AS THE pandemic continues to upend the way children live, President Joe Biden has been pushing to invest in early childhood education and bolster the long-beleaguered child care sector.

Under pressure for some time, many child care providers have been on the brink of closure due to escalating costs while many families cannot afford the care they need to be able to work outside the home. And child care workers often subsist on poverty wages.

Key proposals in the president’s sprawling $3.5 trillion spending plan include funding for universal preschool, affordable child care and an extension of the child tax credit. While the details of the package aren’t finalized, roughly $450 billion is anticipated to go toward early education and child care. These directives would be at least partially funded by raising taxes on individuals earning more than $400,000 and corporations, a stance rejected by Republican lawmakers.

That’s why Democrats are aiming to pass the massive spending plan, which also includes clean energy funding, Medicare expansion and free community college, without Republican support, under special “budget reconciliation” rules. While convention requires that most legislation be supported by more than half the Senate, at least 60 out of 100 senators, the reconciliation process allows the party in power to pass a bill with just a simple majority vote.

Negotiations between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party, however, have been fraught with uncertainty about which policies will survive and which will be cut.

Child advocates, meanwhile, see universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and affordable child care as fundamentally bipartisan issues. After all, children who attend preschool are more likely to succeed in school, research shows, and experts say that 90 percent of brain growth happens before kindergarten.

“I’m excited about the potential investments in children and families,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit research organization. “The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly illustrated that our current system does little to support children and their working parents. If signed into law, these investments could pay dividends for generations and would bring the U.S. more in line with other developed countries in terms of supports offered to families.”

Early education overhaul

If these sweeping policies are enacted, they would overhaul the nation’s child care system to make it more accessible and affordable, advocates say, and transform the early childhood education space.

“Our country’s families and children are hurting,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, a resource and referral agency. “The Build Back Better plan will be a big step towards achieving our goal: a nation where families not only make ends meet, but are able to provide their kids with a childhood that makes them feel limitless.”

However, many experts expect that the size of the spending package will have to be reduced to appease moderates. Former President Barack Obama also made universal preschool a part of his policy agenda, but he was unable to persuade Republicans to go along.

“The free market works well in many different sectors, but child care is not one of them. Those who provide child care aren’t paid well, and many who need it can’t afford it.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

“It appears that the total package is going to have to be cut back significantly. It’s difficult to see how Democratic senators in swing states — like Arizona and West Virginia — can swallow another $3.5 trillion,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “I think the Congress should focus on efforts that lift poor children and families. They should make sure those provisions get through, including the child tax credit and targeted federal dollars to expand pre-K, or improve its quality, for low-income families.”

The expanded child tax credit is already lifting many children out of poverty, experts say. In California, for example, continuing the benefit would cut child poverty from 20 percent to 13.7 percent and bring more than 600,000 kids above the poverty line, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute. 

Child care is another core issue. Even before the public health crisis, the steep cost of child care hobbled many working families. The average yearly price of center-based infant child care in California is more than the average annual tuition and fees at a public four-year college, according to Child Care Aware, an advocacy organization.

Under Biden’s current proposal, child care costs would be capped at 7 percent of a family’s income. That would be a game-changer for many families, advocates say, in a high-cost-of-living state like California.

Major impact on California

In 32 states, a typical family would save more than $100 per week on child care, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. California families would save twice that much under the new plan.

“Child care is one of the biggest expenses in a family budget — especially in California, where child care is more expensive than many other states,” Schumacher said. “Families need to work to pay the bills, but they can’t afford the child care to go to work.”

Certainly, poverty has long haunted child care workers. And now they must also contend with the risk of disease as well. That’s why so many child care workers are leaving the sector for better pay, which can often be found in the fast-food industry.

“The free market works well in many different sectors, but child care is not one of them,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in her remarks about a recent report on the grim state of child care. “Those who provide child care aren’t paid well, and many who need it can’t afford it.”

Many child care providers say they are motivated by their love of working with children, but they also have their own families to feed and hard choices to make.

“Many of us are asking ourselves, how much more we can take, and at what costs?” said Makinya Ward, an administrator at Kids Konnect Preschool, which runs child care centers in San Mateo and Alameda counties. “It’s a taxing job in normal times, so COVID has certainly created a rocky road.”

The median hourly pay for child care workers is $12, which means at least 98 percent of occupations pay more, according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. Child care workers, predominantly women of color, are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, experts say. Biden, for his part, has called for a $15 hourly wage.

“Compensation tied to professional development — and really the general respect due to this essential profession — is a central piece of the puzzle,” said Helene Stebbins, executive director of the Alliance for Early Success, an advocacy group. “Salaries … are so low that they are being siphoned out of the field by $15-an-hour retail jobs, reducing the availability of care and making it impossible for parents to go back to work.”

‘Child care deserts’

There has been a critical shortage in child care for some time, with roughly half of Americans living in “child care deserts,” areas with one spot for every three children needing care, according to the Treasury report. But many advocates are hoping that the chaos wrought by the pandemic will help push much-needed reforms through legislative roadblocks to begin to fix the long-broken system.

“We’re increasingly hopeful for the prospects of available, affordable programs that support early childhood development,” Stebbins said. “We are certainly behind most any plan that would give every family, in every community, the choice to enroll their child in a high-quality setting if they want to. I think policymakers will also get behind it because affordable, quality care for the youngest among us is not a partisan issue. Families across the political spectrum have long wanted it for their own children.”

As for progress that may be on the horizon, child care providers say that every little bit of help, from recognition to funding, buoys people who are struggling to stay afloat.

“Those of us who continue to fight the good fight,” said Ward, “we are pleased that the Biden administration understands the importance of our work and how the lack of child care can impact the economics of our country.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.